On a late December evening in an emptied stadium in the coldest part of Spain, Lionel Messi prepares to set himself apart, once again. A single goal for Barcelona at Valladolid would give Messi the distinction of being the greatest goalscorer for a single club in the professional history of the sport.
Messi's 643rd competitive goal in a Barca jersey, in the 2-2 draw with Valencia at the weekend, matched the current record, the number Pele scored in competitive fixtures for Brazil's Santos between 1957 and 1974. Pele, now 80, sent his congratulations from afar. He assumes the record will be broken soon, and if number 644 does come at Valladolid, there will be applause on hand from somebody who knows what it is to chase a giant Pele milestone. The Valladolid president is the Brazilian Ronaldo, for many years second only to Pele in the list of record goalscorers for their country.
Messi reached his 643 a little scruffily. It should have come direct from a penalty, but Valencia goalkeeper Jaume Domenech momentarily played spoilsport to history by saving the Barcelona’s captain’s spot-kick. He only parried, however, allowing Jordi Alba to pick up the loose ball, and cross for Messi to head in.
Goals from Alba crosses are a regular item in Messi’s vast collection of Barcelona goals. Headers? More of a rarity, although there was a very important one in the 2009 Champions League final. Comparisons across eras are generally misguided, but in any duel to assess greatness between Pele and Messi, we can safely mark the category of aerial threat in Pele’s favour. The Argentinian stands at 1.7m, the Brazilian stood significantly taller and, at his peak, one of Pele’s many athletic assets was a mighty leap.
Pele v Messi has as many distinctions as likenesses. Pele reached his 643 Santos goals in 659 official club matches; Messi should play his 750th Barcelona match next week. But conditions for a brilliant South American footballer playing mostly in South America half a century ago and the most gifted South American playing in Europe in the new millennium are worlds apart. As Pele recalled in his autobiography, he came into a Santos “racking up outrageous scorelines like 10–0, 9–1, 7–1 and 8–1. In thirty-eight games [in the paulista league in 1958] I scored fifty-eight goals.” In all official matches that year, Pele, 18 years old, totalled 75.
Messi’s most golden year would be the 2011/12 season, when, aged 24, he struck 73 Barca goals. Overall, he has probably faced better-organised defences than Pele did. Then again, Pele endured hundreds of fouls that under modern refereeing would be more heavily punished than they were 50 years ago. In the era of black-and-white television, skilful players were often left black-and-blue.
What Messi and Pele do share is the certainty that the record one of them is about to take from the other will take a long time to be passed to anybody else. “Stories like ours, of loving the same club for so long will, sadly, be rarer and rarer,” Pele said in his message to Messi. Fifteen-year careers at one employer scarcely exist in elite football. Stars expect to move on, and clubs budget for their doing so, in the 21st century.
55 Lionel Messi records
In all likelihood, a ceiling can be set, a deadline specified, about how many more goals Messi scores in a Barcelona jersey. He is minded to be elsewhere next season. He tried to leave last summer, and the club he has been associated with since the age of 13 held him to the €700 million buyout clause in his contract. That contract expires in June. In nine days time, he is allowed to enter talks with foreign clubs about joining them in 2021.
Barca no longer meet his best standards, and Messi has been the most astute judge of their decline. Last season was their first without a major trophy for 12 years. He spoke out about systemic failings. Barca sit fifth in La Liga, eight points off leaders Atletico Madrid, who have played one match fewer. He has watched his favourite allies, like Luis Suarez, depart as a debt-burdened Barcelona cut costs.
In short, he feels eerily like a certain great footballer of the past whose loyalty to the club he had served from his early teens into his mid-30s would eventually seem like a restriction. “With the club I had played for all my life it became harder all the time. The people I knew best fell by the wayside. It felt lonely.” The words are Pele’s, recalling how he felt aged 33. The words could just as easily be 33-year-old Messi’s.